Comparisons with David Bowie were inevitable following the passing of Prince on Thursday, the similarities not merely outweighing the differences, but also revealing of how singular they both were as artistic figures in popular culture. Much of the comment has emphasised how they not merely projected new forms of masculinity, but were demonstrating these extravagant, ambiguous expressions of identity when it was a lot riskier to do so than it is today. In their own ways, they were the most eloquent and persuasive advertisements for abandoning the inhibitions of convention. We can recognise crassness of exhibitionism for its own sake when we see it, something even very established stars can be prone to. That is why admiration is always due to those who are not merely autonomous enough to make their own rules, but to do so in a way that serves an artistic purpose.
Another thing they had in common was an ability to mix different musical styles. But many musicians are adept at doing that. Bowie and Prince did so in a seminal way that extended to performance and visual presentation. The legacy of Bowie’s restless evolution can perhaps most be seen in fashion. Take a visit to most culturally vibrant parts in the world, and you will see many people on the street seeking to channel their inner Bowie in one way or another. With Prince, it was perhaps different, more personal. There was arguably a more extensive exploration of sexual and gender identity in his work, with the added dimension of challenging racial archetypes. And there is no mistaking the prevailing subject matter of Prince’s work, the wonder being how it succeeded in being unreservedly carnal – elevating sex to the status of healing force – while the artist himself retained a mysterious, amorphous, coy shyness.
But too much focus on the flamboyance can lead one to missing the essential talent underpinning it, without which the persona and the attitude is unpersuasive. And while a capacity for slippery unknowingness is satisfying in a creative person, it also shouldn’t go unacknowledged that Prince had a technical mastery of all the musical crafts. Prince was preternaturally talented and driven, with a concern for taking charge of his own career that famously brought him into conflict with his record company in the 1990s. From the time he embarked on his sumptuously creative career, with the whole multiplicity of elements it contained, he knew what he wanted, and he was accordingly determined to take full command of the creative process. Pursuing all his ideas led to him generating a prodigious level of output, such that comparisons of attempts to compile best of lists of his back catalogue are unlikely to tally.
By doing so much, to the extent of playing all the instruments on a number of his albums, it might almost be argued that he was drawing some attention away from his virtuosity in individual crafts. He was a superlative guitarist, who soared whatever the backdrop, be it the intimacy of a small club in the late hours, or a large stadium, as in his celebrated Super Bowl performance. He represents, in short, something unique in musical history. If there’s ever been anybody else as proficient in all aspects of the musical creative process, as a composer, as an instrumentalist, as a performer, and as a producer of records, this writer hasn’t heard of them.